simile (figure of speech)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

similes on screen
Four examples of similes. (Balavan/Getty Images)


A simile is a figure of speech in which two fundamentally unlike things are explicitly compared, usually in a phrase introduced by like or as.

"The simile sets two ideas side by side," said F.L. Lucas. "[I]n the metaphor they become superimposed" (Style).(The differences between similes and metaphors are considered in the observations below.)

In everyday conversations as well as in writing and formal speeches, we use similes to clarify ideas, create memorable images, and emphasize key points.

"In argument," wrote poet Matthew Prior, "similes are like songs in love: / They much describe; they nothing prove" ("Alma").

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From Latin, "likeness" or "comparison"


  • "When he lifted me up in his arms I felt I had left all my troubles on the floor beneath me like gigantic concrete shoes."
    (Anne Tyler, Earthly Possessions. Random House, 1977)
  • "Our last impression of her as she turned the corner was that smile, flung backward like a handful of flowers."
    (Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety, 1987)
  • "She dealt with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat."
    (James Joyce, "The Boarding House")
  • "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."
    (Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty in Blade Runner, 1982)
  • "Without warning, Lionel gave one of his tight little sneezes: it sounded like a bullet fired through a silencer."
    (Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo: State of England. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)
  • "When Lee Mellon finished the apple he smacked his lips together like a pair of cymbals."
    (Richard Brautigan, A Confederate General From Big Sur, 1964)
  • “Her mind was like a balloon with static cling, attracting random ideas as they floated by.”
    (Jonathan Franzen, Purity. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015)
  • "Human kindness is like a defective tap: the first gush may be impressive, but the stream soon dries up."
    (P.D. James, Devices and Desires. Faber and Faber, 1989)
  • "Good coffee is like friendship: rich and warm and strong."
    (slogan of Pan-American Coffee Bureau)

  • "You know life, life is rather like opening a tin of sardines. We're all of us looking for the key."
    (Alan Bennett, Beyond the Fringe, 1960)
  • "He was like a cock who thought the sun had risen to hear him crow."
    (George Eliot, Adam Bede, 1859)
  • "Human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity."
    (Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 1856)
  • "Humanity, let us say, is like people packed in an automobile which is traveling downhill without lights at terrific speed and driven by a four-year-old child. The signposts along the way are all marked 'Progress.'"
    (Lord Dunsany)
  • "The living self has one purpose only: to come into its own fullness of being, as a tree comes into full blossom, or a bird into spring beauty, or a tiger into lustre."
    (D.H. Lawrence, "Each Man Shall Be Spontaneously Himself")
  • "Life is like an onion: You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep."
    (Carl Sandburg)
  • Shrek: Ogres are like onions.
    Donkey: They stink?
    Shrek: Yes. No!
    Donkey: They make you cry?
    Shrek: No!
    Donkey: You leave them out in the sun, they get all brown, start sprouting little white hairs.
    Shrek: No! Layers! Onions have layers!
    (Shrek, 2001)
  • "The interior of the Earth is rather like an onion, made up of a series of concentric shells or layers."
    (Martin Redfern, The Earth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2003)

  • "My soul is like a pawn shop. I mean it's filled with unredeemed pleasures, old clarinets, and cameras, and moth-eaten fur."
    (Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King. Viking, 1959)
  • "My face looks like a wedding-cake left out in the rain."
    (W.H. Auden, quoted by Humphrey Carpenter in W.H. Auden: A Biography. HarperCollins, 1981)
  • "He's got a face like a wet Sunday in a debtors' prison."
    (Joe Bennett, Mustn't Grumble. Simon & Schuster, 2006)
  • "She has a voice like a baritone sax issuing from an oil drum, and hams even with her silences."
    (John Simon, reviewing Kathleen Turner in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, April 2005)
  • "Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth."
    (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses. Vintage Books, 1990)
  • "[H]e looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."
    (Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely, 1940)
  • "The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men."
    (Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, 1939)
  • "It is all, God help us, a matter of rocks. The rocks shape life like hands around swelling dough."
    (Annie Dillard, "Life on the Rocks: The Galápagos")
  • "An imperturbable demeanour comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm."
    (Robert Louis Stevenson. An Inland Voyage, 1878)
  • "you fit into me
    like a hook into an eye

    a fish hook
    an open eye"
    (Margaret Atwood)
  • " . . . Here comes
    The white-haired thistle seed stumbling past through the branches
    Like a paper lantern carried by a blind man."
    (W.S. Merwin, "Sire." The Second Four Books of Poems. Copper Canyon Press, 1993)
  • "A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard."
    (George Orwell, "A Hanging," 1931)
  • "If you are interested in becoming a TV journalist, it is a fine example of how not to do it. I look like an exploding tomato and shout like a jet engine and every time I see it [the video] makes me cringe."
    (John Sweeney, "Row Over Scientology Video." BBC News, May 14, 2007)
  • "My memory is proglottidean, like the tapeworm, but unlike the tapeworm it has no head, it wanders in a maze, and any point may be the beginning or the end of its journey."
    (Umberto Eco, "The Gorge")
  • "[Colonel John R. Stingo] is in my opinion the best curve-ball writer since Anatomy Burton and Sir Thomas Browne, making the prose of his contemporaries look shabby and unfurnished. His sentences soar like laminated boomerangs, luring the reader’s eye until they swoop in and dart across the mind like bright-eyed hummingbirds, for a clean strike every time."
    (A.J. Liebling, "Paysage de Crépuscule." Just Enough Liebling: Classic Work by the Legendary New Yorker Writer. Macmillan, 2005)
  • "Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming."
    (John Updike, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," 1960)
  • "Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis."
    (Roger Angell, "This Old Man." The New Yorker, February 17, 2014)
  • "When Ronnie was really annoyed his face swelled up and turned purple like the rear end of an amorous baboon."
    (Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs. Jonathan Cape, 1980)
  • "Matt Leinart slid into the draft like a bald tire on black ice."
    (Rob Oller, Columbus Dispatch, Feb. 25, 2007)
  • P.G. Wodehouse's Similes
    "[Lord Emsworth] had mislaid his glasses and without them was as blind, to use his own neat simile, as a bat."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Leave It to Psmith, 1923)

    "Old Bassett had been listening to these courtesies with a dazed expression on the map--gulping a bit from time to time, like a fish that has been hauled out of a pond on a bent pin and isn't at all sure it is equal to the pressure of events."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, 1938)

    "He paused and swallowed convulsively, like a Pekingese taking a pill."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, 1938)

    "The Duke's moustache was rising and falling like seaweed on an ebb-tide."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, 1939)

    "Pauline . . . remained in Chuffy's arms gurgling like a leaky radiator, and it was only some little time later that she began to regain anything of a grip on her faculties. The girl seemed goofy."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Thank You, Jeeves, 1934)

    "Her face was shining like the seat of a bus driver's trousers."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, 1954)

Observations on the Differences Between Similes and Metaphors

  • "Writers sometimes use similes and metaphors to help create a vivid image in the reader's mind. A simile compares two things using the word like or as.
    Simile: My father grumbles like a bear in the mornings.
    A metaphor also compares two things, but it does not use the word like or as.
    Metaphor: My father is a bear in the mornings.
    (English Language Arts Skills & Strategies: Level 8, Saddleback, 2005)
  • "The simile sets two ideas side by side; in the metaphor they become superimposed. It would seem natural to think that simile, being simpler, is older."
    (F.L. Lucas, Style. Macmillan, 1955)
  • "A simile is also a metaphor; for there is little difference: when the poet says, 'He rushed as a lion,' it is a simile, but 'The lion rushed' [with lion referring to a man] would be a metaphor; since both are brave, he used a metaphor [i.e., a simile] and spoke of Achilles as a lion. The simile is useful also in speech, but only occasionally, for it is poetic. [Similes] should be brought in like metaphors; for they are metaphors, differing in the form of expression."
    (Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book Three, Chapter 4. Translated by George A. Kennedy, Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Oxford University Press, 1991)
  • "Simile and Metaphor differ only in degree of stylistic refinement. The Simile, in which a comparison is made directly between two objects, belongs to an earlier stage of literary expression: it is the deliberate elaboration of a correspondence, often pursued for its own sake. But a Metaphor is the swift illumination of an equivalence. Two images, or an idea and an image, stand equal and opposite; clash together and respond significantly, surprising the reader with a sudden light."
    (Herbert Read, English Prose Style. Beacon, 1955)
  • "The relationship between simile and metaphor is close, metaphor often being defined as a condensed simile, that is, someone who runs like lightning can be called a lightning runner. Sometimes, simile and metaphor blend so well that the join is hard to find . . .."
    (Tom McArthur, The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford Univ. Press, 1992)
  • "Metaphor conveys a relationship between two things by using a word or words figuratively, not literally; that is, in a special sense which is different from the sense it has in the contexts noted by the dictionary.

    "By contrast, in simile, words are used literally, or 'normally.' This thing A is said to be 'like' that thing, B. The description given to A and to B is as accurate as literal words can make it, and the reader is confronted by a kind of fait accompli, where sense-impressions are often the final test of success. Thus 'my car is like a beetle' uses the words 'car' and 'beetle' literally, and the simile depends for its success on the literal--even visual--accuracy of the comparison."
    (Terence Hawkes, Metaphor. Methuen, 1972)
  • The Reader's Role in Deciphering Similes and Metaphors
    "[A] simile tells us, in part, what a metaphor merely nudges us into thinking. . . .

    "The view that the special meaning of a metaphor is identical with the literal meaning of a corresponding simile (however 'corresponding' is spelled out) should not be confused with the common theory that a metaphor is an elliptical simile. This theory makes no distinction in meaning between a metaphor and some related simile and does not provide any ground for speaking of figurative, metaphorical, or special meanings. . . .

    "The simile says there is a likeness and leaves it to us to figure out some common feature or features; the metaphor does not explicitly assert a likeness, but if we accept it as a metaphor, we are again led to seek common features (not necessarily the same features the associated simile suggests . . .)."
    (Donald Davidson, "What Metaphors Mean," in On Metaphor, ed. by Sheldon Sacks. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979)
  • Extended Similes
    Antapodosis is Quintilian's term for an extended simile: "such reciprocal representation places both subjects of comparison before our very eyes, displaying them side by side" (Institutes of Oratory, 95 AD).
  • The Naive Simile Theory and the Figurative Simile Theory
    "Most theorists have thought that metaphor is somehow a matter of bringing out similarities between things or states of affairs. Donald Davidson [above] argues that this 'bringing out' is purely causal, and in no way linguistic; hearing the metaphor just somehow has the effect of making us see a similarity. The Naive Simile Theory goes to the opposite extreme, having it that metaphors simply abbreviate explicit literal comparisons. Both views are easily seen to be inadequate. According to the Figurative Simile Theory, on the other hand, metaphors are short for similes themselves taken figuratively. This view avoids the three most obvious objections to the Naive Simile Theory, but not all the tough ones."
    (William G. Lycan, Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2008)

Pronunciation: SIM-i-lee